DAY 1 - Monday, July 8, 1968
I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning. The wind, even at sixty miles an hour, is warm and humid.
This is our time-of-day reference for the beginning of the trip. At 8:30 AM they're already rolling down a highway at speed. The motorcycle the author rides is never identified, though his companions' bike is stated to be a BMW R60. Pirsig's cycle is actually a 1964 Honda CB77 Superhawk. It's a 305cc parallel twin, which is half the size of the Sutherland's BMW engine.
We are in an area of the Central Plains filled with thousands of duck hunting sloughs, heading northwest from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas.
This highway is an old concrete two-laner that hasn’t had much traffic since a four-laner went in parallel to it several years ago.
Here and there is a stretch of open water and if you look closely you can see wild ducks at the edge of the cattails.
Based on this description, knowledge of their starting points (Pirsig and Sutherland's homes), and some other references around the types of road they prefer and the missed turn (below), we assume this is Highway 55 out of Minneapolis, which is just minutes from the Sutherlands house at 2649 Colfax Ave (referenced in Chapter 14). It parallels a railroad, heads through marshes and sloughs, and also I-94 parallels it to the north. This highway goes past areas with many small lakes and marshes.
But now in July
The only date references in the book are this and one other mention of July, and many mentions of summer, including specifically "the early part of the summer".
Secondary roads are preferred. Paved county roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are the worst.
We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on “good” rather than “time” and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes. Twisting hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don’t get swung from side to side in any compartment. Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable, as well as safer.
We have learned how to spot the good ones on a map, for example. If the line wiggles, that’s good. That means hills. If it appears to be the main route from a town to a city, that’s bad.
Again, using this as a general guidance for route preference - he will take secondary, windy roads over straight ones and freeways. Judgement calls on a case-by-case basis will occur, but I have Garmin Basecamp set to the curvy road routing profile which largely seems to satisfy.
So we navigate mostly by dead reckoning, and deduction from what clues we find. I keep a compass in one pocket for overcast days when the sun doesn’t show directions and have the map mounted in a special carrier on top of the gas tank where I can keep track of miles from the last junction and know what to look for.
This isn't relevant to finding the original route, but rather will be relevant to me as to how I approach my own trip. I'm not 100% set on my navigation method. GPS will be available for sure, but I don't know if it will be my primary source. I will have a map and compass available, though compass accuracy may be difficult from the metal of the motorcycle and EMF of the electric drivetrain.
Unless you’re fond of hollering you don’t make great conversations on a running cycle. Instead you spend your time being aware of things and meditating on them.
On my trip, my daughter and I will be going without communicators. She's experienced riding with me and we have our own system of taps and pats. To me this isn't a issue of technology, it's more the second sentence about being aware of things and meditating on them. Constant chatter would take that away.
"Well, you know, work," I repeat. "Monday morning. Half asleep. Who goes to work Monday morning with a grin?"
Here is our day-of-week reference point to set the rest of the story. We now know they left on a Monday, in July.
We’re out of the marshes now, but the air is still so humid you can look straight up directly at the yellow circle of the sun as if there were smoke or smog in the sky. But we’re in the green countryside now. The farmhouses are clean and white and fresh. And there’s no smoke or smog.
This section doesn't help us navigate but is just a reference of the terrain changing. I will include a few of these types of references that establish the setting, but not all purely scenic descriptions throughout the book.
We are not in the Dakotas yet, but the broad fields show we are getting nearer.
There is no one place or sharp line where the Central Plains end and the Great Plains begin.
There are fewer trees here and suddenly I am aware they are no longer native. They have been brought here and planted around houses and between fields in rows to break up the wind. But where they haven’t been planted there is no underbrush, no second-growth saplings—only grass, sometimes with wildflowers and weeds, but mostly grass. This is grassland now. We are on the prairie. I have a feeling none of us fully understands what four days on this prairie in July will be like.
Still in Minnesota, just scenic descriptions. Not much hard data to go off of in the book on this first day, so we'll establish the setting more visually.
All of a sudden John passes me, his palm down, signaling a stop.
We slow down and look for a place to pull off on the gravelly shoulder.
Chris asks, “What are we stopping for?” “I think we missed our turn back there,” John says. I look back and see nothing. “I didn’t see any sign,” I say. John shakes his head. “Big as a barn door.” “Really?” He and Sylvia both nod. He leans over, studies my map and points to where the turn was and then to a freeway overpass beyond it. “We’ve already crossed this freeway,” he says. I see he is right. Embarrassing. “Go back or go ahead?” I ask. He thinks about it. “Well, I guess there’s really no reason to go back. All right. Let’s just go ahead. We’ll get there one way or another.”
Hwy 55 makes an unexpected left near Elbow Lake, toward Wendell.
This seems like an easy turn to miss, as the road continues straight on with another designation.
A few miles later it crosses I-94, the freeway that parallels Highway 55.
This is the only freeway for a long way, there is no other option.
So I believe this is the missed turn.
Had they made the left turn on MN-55, that would turn into ND-11 which leads directly to Oakes, ND, which ends up as their destination for the night.
Alternatively they could have also taken MN-9 & 75 up to 210 and taken a similar route to their actual one.
Another alternative is they could have turned off of 55 even earlier at MN-27 to cut over to MN-9 again. These are all reasonable options which follow the storyline very well, heading Northwest out of Minneapolis and landing in Oakes, ND.
This is why Highway 55 makes the most sense for the start of their journey. And they can continue on toward Fergus Falls, and pick up Hwy 210 without going very far out of the way. I feel this option matches the descriptions in the book the best.
There are a few other options that I explored in detail suggested by others on the web, but they all have critical errors compared with the book's descriptions.
I suddenly notice the land here has flattened into a Euclidian plane. Not a hill, not a bump anywhere. This means we have entered the Red River Valley. We will soon be into the Dakotas.
The Red River is the border between Minnesota and North Dakota, and goes into Breckenridge, which is referenced in the next chapter. On the terrain map the flat valley area begins about 5 or 6 miles west of Fergus Falls on MN-210, providing again congruence between our deducted path and the descriptions in the book. Again a second realistic option is that they are on RT 9 / 75, depending on which turn they missed. That option would bypass Fergus Falls.
John and I have discussed the situation in Breckenridge and decided to keep going until we have to stop.
This is the first hard location reference since leaving Minneapolis.
I'm pretty sure about the earlier navigation but there's no way to be certain until here.
It appears from the photos that they took a rest stop after Breckenridge, the photo of Robert and Chris on the Honda with a covered picnic table and road in the background. This exact location near Milnor, ND is known and marked on the map / GPX. The covered picnic bench is still there as of this writing, visible on Google Street View.
The first rain begins now but up ahead I see the lights of a town…I knew it would be there.
John says there is a motel at the other end of town, but I tell him there’s a better one if you turn right, at a row of cottonwoods a few blocks down.
We walk into town, have supper, and by the time we get back, the fatigue of the day is really on me. We rest, almost motionless, in the metal armchairs of the motel courtyard
This town is assumed to be Oakes, ND. There are not a lot of towns in the area, and Gwinner and Ludden aren't big enough to have motels. Oakes matches the description of about 1/2 hour to Ellendale for breakfast on Day 2, and it's after the afternoon covered picnic bench stop. If they are heading South through town, there is no longer a motel on the West side (to the right). There is a hotel on the East side of town currently. Either way there is none to the North or South....Continue to Day 2